So where did tea come from? The origins of tea can be found in China. According to legend, tea was discovered by accident over 5000 years ago. An evil and despotic emperor, Shen Nung, was overthrown and banished to a remote section of Southern China. Driven by poverty to drinking only hot water, one day he was pleasantly surprised when a gust of wind blew some leaves from a nearby tree into his pot of boiling water. The resulting infusion was so relaxing that he lived under the tree for the next 7 years, drinking only tea which he named “Tai&apos”, (peace). It is generally agreed that tea did come form China.
By 80 AD, tea had spread to Japan . After a passage of 200 years, small quantities of tea were taken west on Persian caravan routes. It is possible that the first Europeans to taste tea were the Crusaders. By the middle of the 16th century the Venetians were importing tea as a medicine for stomach troubles. It was their trade rivals, the Dutch and a queen who was to introduce Europe to tea.
We know that in 1622, King Charles II married the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza. Catherine brought tea chests to England as part of her wedding dowry and popularized the custom of taking tea at court. Some 50 years later tea drinking became more popular, thanks to the Royal Family, when Queen Anne starting drinking tea with her breakfast rather than the customary beer.
Tea consumption increased dramatically in the early nineteenth century. Thanks to a duchess Anna, 7th Duchess of Bedford is said to have complained of having a sinking feeling in the late afternoon. At that time it was usual for people to take only two meals a day, breakfast and then dinner around 8 o’clock in the evening. The solution for the Duchess was a pot of hot tea and some bead and butter sandwiches. This was taken in her private sitting room. Later friends were invited to join in her rooms at Woburn Abbey. This summer practice became so popular that the Duchess continued it when she returned to London for the “London Season”. Other social hostesses quickly adopted the idea and the practice became respectable enough to move it into the drawing room. Before long all of fashionable society was sipping tea and nibbling dainty “ladies” sandwiches and eating thin slices of cake in the middle of the afternoon.
Traditionally, the upper classes would serve a “low” or “afternoon” tea between the hours of 2 o’clock to 4 o’clock.
The lower and middle classes would have a more substantial “high” tea late in the day, at five or six o’clock. High tea is a family affair. The names derive from the height of the tables on which the tea is served.
If you ever go to London, try to do to one of the teas served in the hotel. Some of the better known ones are Harrods, the Churchill Hotel on Oxford St., the Royal Garden at Kensington Court and the Metropolitan at Mayfair. Afternoon tea is a true luxury and the English “do it” to their very best.